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Judge Makes Suit Against Penn & Teller Vanish

Even though one half of Penn & Teller doesn't talk, the duo has just struck a blow for freedom of speech. A federal judge last week threw out a lawsuit, filed by a group that advocates the teaching of creationism in Cobb County, Ga., public schools, against Viacom, which produces Penn & Teller's Showtime series Bullshit!. The magicians/debunkers ran afoul of the creationists with a 2003 episode that included interviews with the activists and their testimony at a school board meeting arguing that textbooks should bear stickers stating that evolution is just a theory. The plaintiffs claimed the release forms they signed were misleading. The show, they found, was “an aggressive, irreverent exposé of the beliefs of Christianity and creationism, and a personal attack.” The plaintiffs claimed fraud and breach of contract, but the defense convinced the judge that it was a defamation case—and thus a First Amendment issue.

On March 1, U.S. district court Judge Charles Pannell Jr. dismissed the claim before it could go to trial. Vincent Chieffo, an attorney representing the show's producers, Showtime and Viacom, welcomed the decision: “If you're in the First Amendment business, it's expensive to litigate, and it's expensive to win.” Plaintiffs' attorney James Creasy says he does not know if his clients will appeal. Having survived in the Darwinian world of the TV business, Bullshit! returns for a third season on April 25.

Disney: Prim, Or Just Wily?

The entire cable industry vowed to fight Congress following Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens' recent call to impose broadcast indecency restrictions on cable nets. Well, almost the entire cable industry, anyway. A Disney executive tells B&C that, as the owner of ABCFamily, ESPN as well as the ABC broadcast network, the House of Mouse actually favors indecency limits on extended-basic lineups. That prospect alarms other companies—shows like South Park and Nip/Tuck would have to be cleaned up or aired only after 10 p.m.—but Disney's fine with it. “Ultimately, all the attempts to distinguish cable from broadcast will fail,” says the Disney exec.

Of course, any time you hear a media company volunteering for tighter government controls, it sets off the old Follow the Money alarm bells. As it happens, some lawmakers are suggesting an alternative to the content restrictions: forcing cable operators to allow “à la carte” channel shopping so that parents can opt not to receive channels they don't want their kids to see. Mostly wholesome Disney doesn't have much to fear there. Ah, but à la carte selection would also allow millions of subscribers who don't like sports but do like cutting expenses to dump ESPN—one of the priciest items on cable's prix fixe menu.

Better 'Late' HD Than Never

Letterman, Letterman everywhere. He kept popping up on the Flash! radar last week, from CBS uber-boss Les Moonves' contention in a Playboy magazine interview that his man would beat Jay Leno in the late-night ratings if Nielsen could just tally guys watching in sports bars and frat houses, to Dave's conducting the Dan Rather exit interview as the newsman gives up the CBS Evening News anchor chair. Then there was the tech gossip that came our way: Next fall, Letterman's Late Show will, at a long last, start broadcasting in high-definition (Leno went HD in 1999). Nice to know that the Late Show look will finally sparkle as much as the writing still does after all these years.

In case you missed it, the other night Letterman offered a Top 10 list of “Other Changes at CNN.” Given the subsequent news that CNN dropped 21% in February prime time ratings from last year, the network might want to give this some serious thought:

10.Wolf Blitzer changing his name to Blitz Wolfer.

9. When covering a hard story, reporters ask, “What would Jack Daniels do?”

8. Every Sunday, it's a WKRP in Cincinnati marathon.

7. Reporters must make quotation marks with fingers when calling Bush “President.”

6. They're putting Lou Dobbs on steroids.

5. Every night, one lucky viewer receives an on-air physical from Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

4. Last 10 minutes of newscasts anchors sing hits from the '70s, '80s, '90s and today.

3. Let's just say Paula Zahn is now Paul Zahn.

2. Changing name to CNNN.

1. Interactive feature allows viewers to administer painful electric shock to Larry King.

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